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Opinion Enough with the ‘is this a recession?’ blather

President Biden speaks in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on July 28. (Oliver Contreras/Bloomberg)

Are we in a recession? Does it even matter?

That might seem like a crazy pair of questions. You might already be aware of this common definition of a recession: two consecutive quarters of negative gross domestic product growth. You might also have noticed that a preliminary Bureau of Economic Analysis report released Thursday shows that the economy contracted at an annualized pace of 0.9 percent in the second quarter, following a decrease of 1.6 percent in the first quarter.

Thus, the pundit class launched into a quarrel over whether this really, truly constitutes a recession. As with everything else these days, the debate (mostly) split along partisan lines and became so fierce that Wikipedia had to close its entry on recessions to edits.

The right insists that, yes, obviously we’re in a recession. What part of “two quarters of negative GDP growth” don’t you understand? The left points out that actually, the official U.S. metric relies on a considerably more complicated cocktail of indicators. As President Biden argued Thursday afternoon, this very weird post-pandemic economy has given us weak GDP paired with a strong job market.

Biden’s points are not unreasonable. But it is probably unreasonable to spend much time arguing about them.

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The Biden administration has spent a lot of energy trying to manage perceptions of the economy. Remember when inflation was going to be “temporary”? That experience should be instructive. Insisting that inflation was just a blip didn’t stop consumers from noticing that prices were rising. Nor did it protect Biden’s approval ratings, which dived even as the administration continued to insist that everything was fine.

Of course, inflation wasn’t the only reason for Biden’s unpopularity, which intensified right around the time that America was flooded with disastrous images from the Afghanistan withdrawal. But inflation was certainly a major contributor, and it is now probably the biggest factor in Biden’s catastrophically low ratings. There’s just not much that political messaging can do when consumers have to stare reality in the face every time they go to the grocery store.

In fairness, some would argue that when it comes to the economy, perceptions can become reality. That is, if workers expect higher inflation, they’ll demand higher wages — which forces companies to raise prices. So it goes with a recession: If consumers think we’re in for a bad time, they might cut back on their spending to build up enough savings to cushion for a job loss. Since that spending is someone else’s income, those folks will then have to cut back, too, creating a cascade that can drive the economy into deeper trouble. Thus, the theory goes, if you can prevent the media from talking down the economy, we might all be better off.

But real-world evidence for this effect is surprisingly mixed. And it’s probably of little importance in our odd economic circumstances. People aren’t worried about losing their jobs right now. In fact, nearly three-quarters of Americans tell Gallup that it’s a great time to be looking for a quality job. Yet their economic confidence is low because real incomes are falling and interest rates have spiked, making it harder to buy a house or a car. You can’t message people out of thinking their economic circumstances have gotten worse — or out of worrying that this portends ill for the future.

So all the spin efforts are likely to come to naught. But contra angry conservatives, it’s probably harmless — except as it’s emblematic of a dangerous tendency on the left to believe they can control reality by controlling the words we use to describe it.

Of course, the right, like the left, tries to use language that frames issues in a way that favors their side — from the “death tax” to rechristening advocates of trans inclusion as “groomers.” But theirs is a minor hobby compared to the left’s full-time obsession.

It is the left that has put us on a never-ending euphemism treadmill, transforming “illegal alien” into “illegal immigrant” and therefrom to “undocumented worker” and so on — and across many sensitive issues. As linguist Steven Pinker has noted, the intent is to shed the negative associations attached to the old words. And, as he has explained, this doesn’t work: The negative associations are attached to the underlying concept, not the vocabulary.

Meanwhile, the constant word churn alienates people who find the neologisms alien and off-putting, especially less-educated voters that Democrats are now hemorrhaging. It also substitutes for, and distracts from, more substantive efforts. While New York state was preparing to declare monkeypox an emergency, New York City’s health commissioner was wasting time composing a letter to the World Health Organization, demanding it change the name of the disease to something more sensitive.

Sure, you can’t really blame the Biden administration for trying to put a positive spin on things. But the rest of us — and Democrats especially — would be better off if the left spent less time looking for better phrasing and more time finding solutions.